An ant-hill… A beehive… No, it’s more like a ballet; a ballet, with its well-rehearsed choreography, every participant sticking precisely to its path in a continuous and fast motion, with an unbelievable precision. Except that I’m witnessing how electrical trolleys are evolving, delivering some of the 20 million flowers traded everyday here, in Aalsmeer, The Netherlands, at the biggest flower auction in the world.
The flowers arrived last night by truck or by plane from far away countries like South Africa for exotic flowers, or Zambia, Zimbabwe or Ethiopia for roses… They have been waiting in a climate-controlled room (3 to 8°C depending on the flowers) to stay as fresh as possible. As early as 3am, the first buyers walk the huge warehouse, carefully studying thousands of bunches: the type of flower, the colour, the opening stage, the quality, the grower… They have to know what they want, and how much they are ready to pay for it, as it is close to 6 in the morning, and the auction is about to start.
In the auction rooms, the atmosphere is tensed over the humming sound of buyers exchanging information with their colleagues through their headsets. About 80 buyers are seated, extremely focused on their laptops and on the massive screens projected in front of them. It is quite hard to understand for the non-insider: a red digital dot drops fast around what looks like a big clock, numbered from 1 to 0. “It is a reversed auction,” Hans explains. “The price of the stem starts at 1€, and the buyer has to push fast to make sure he gets the bunch that is displayed at the right price. If he is too early, he will pay too much. If he is too late, someone else will get it! The speed of the red dot is controlled by a few auctioneers. It goes very fast…” On top of that, buyers are often juggling with multiple screens open at the same time as they can be logged into other flower auctions. The competition is fierce: it is not only the buyers in this room, but any buyer located in Europe can log into the auction program and participate (beyond Europe, the delay of the connection makes the reactivity too slow). Hans knows what he is talking about: he used to sit on both sides of this room, as a buyer and an auction master. Passionate about flowers among which he grew up, he has been working for years at DGI, one of the flower companies located within automated-trolley distance of the auctions.
It will all be traded by 10am: in four hours, more than 20 million flowers will be traded! “Four hours for the auction? I had no idea there was such a variety of flowers!” I tell Hans. “That’s because wholesalers limit their stocks to about 200 varieties, and that’s where florists buy. But indeed, there are more than 2000 varieties available!” When Hans works on providing the perfect shade of peach roses for a one billion euro wedding party, the wide variety to choose from does matter! And so does the timing… DGI has been changing the game by supplying flowers directly from the grower to the shop thanks to the G-Fresh concept, dramatically cutting down on delivery times.
In about six hours, all these 20 million flowers will be moved throughout the warehouse from their point of origin to the buyer’s section or directly to one of the 580 companies that are onsite via an automated line. 24,000 trolleys, operated by 300 people: it is this astonishing ballet we are witnessing. “By 2pm, it is all gone! The floor of the warehouse will be empty, waiting for the new bunches to be delivered for tomorrow’s auction”. Hans has been working here for years, and overlooking the ballet with us from the catwalk, his eyes show pride and astonishment in the second to none logistics and clock-work precision that is displayed in Aalsmeer every day.
- We would like to warmly thank DGI who has been our guide into the flower business in the Netherlands, and more specifically Piet van Kampen and Hans Struik. Check out their Facebook page for astonishing flower arrangements.
- To get an idea of the variety of flowers grown, check out the free online magazine Floral fundamentals. It puts the florist in touch with the grower directly while showcasing some impressive creations!
- The turnover of the Dutch auctions is close to 5 billion euros, representing about 60% of the flower and plant world trade (as of 2016).
- For other unique auctions, check out the tuna auction in Tokyo!
- You can visit the flower auction. Flora Holland has several locations. Aalsmeer is the tallest and conveniently located close to Schiphol airport and Amsterdam.
- If you are coming to the Netherlands to visit the Keukenhof gardens, make sure you also visit the flower auction to get the full picture of the Dutch flower know-how.
- Refer to our free interactive map for specific details to help you plan your trip, locations and nearby points of interest (zoom out) in the area.